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Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Read The Backpacker

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Published on March 13, 2010 with 3 Comments

Milonga of La Catedral

Milonga of La Catedral

“Sir, could you please wait with me here in the car for a little bit?” I asked my taxi driver, Gerardo. We had arrived in La Catedral, a famous underground milonga in Almagro, an old neighborhood in Buenos Aires.

I was about to get out when I noticed two drunken men coming out of La Cathedral. They had long hair and grubby, unkempt appearances. They stood at the entrance, struggling to stay upright. Their eyes were red and lost, and their lips as slack as gel when they talked. They hugged and kissed each other on the cheeks—kissing among men is common in Argentina.

It was almost midnight in a dark and lonely street of Almagro, and the entry of La Catedral was guarded by two wasted men. I had my doubts about whether going alone to this underground milonga was safe, but my curiosity and my passion for tango were stronger than my concerns.

“Okay, sir, I think I am ready to go, but could you please wait here until I am inside?” I asked Gerardo. Five minutes had passed and the “drunken guardians” didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

“Of course,” he said.

I got out and looked down, trying to keep as low a profile as possible. I darted inside the old building that housed La Catedral.

A man stood at the foot of a staircase. “Just one?” he asked, giving me a ticket. “Welcome to La Catedral.”

I walked up the barely lit stairs that led to the second floor. Due to its name, I imagined the place was going to literally be a cathedral turned into a ballroom, but for Argentineans, cathedral has another meaning. Here, people use the term to refer to a location that is the best place for something. So La Catedral was the best place to tango.

As I stepped into the main room, the famous underground milonga caught me in its spell. The simple downstairs entrance hid a huge and extraordinary place with high ceilings, an aged wooden floor, darkened, soaring walls covered with old posters and paintings, a few broken windows, candelabras, ragged furniture, and old wooden chairs. The decorations seemed to have been taken from an old sale garage. I was enthralled!

La Catedral is actually an old granary from the 1800s converted into a tango bar. This milonga is a far cry from the formal ballroom atmosphere of other milongas in Buenos Aires. A wild side of tango exposed! It’s a rundown place, but its relaxed and tattered character made me imagine being in the arrabal—the low-class suburbs lying on the outskirts of Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Rio de Plata (Uruguay)—in the 1850s. Many stories claim the tango originated in the arrabal, secretly danced in cabarets amidst prostitutes.

La Catedral dance floor

La Catedral dance floor

A bar sits at one end of the main room. A huge red heart hangs over the counter. A rickety three-story structure—which seems too fragile to hold an orchestra—stands at the other end of the room. A large, black-and-white painting of Carlos Gardel dangles on the wall. And in the middle of it all, tables line two sides of a vast, square wooden dance floor.
Despite its size, the place was almost empty. Argentineans who seemed to be “friends of the house” occupied a few tables, chatting and drinking. Two couples took over the large dance floor. Chest-to-chest and with their faces softly touching, the dancers strolled elegantly around the room, brushing legs and knees with each step, making the sensual and intricate tango moves look effortless. A string of multicolor lights was suspended over the milongueros.
I sat at one of the tables, took my tango shoes out of my purse, and put them on. I looked around to see if any of the milongueros would make eye contact with me and ask me to dance, but it was hard to take my eyes off the dance floor. I enjoy dancing the tango, but I equally enjoy watching good dancers connect through music, and the two couples on the dance floor were making magic. Maybe it was the uniqueness of the place itself; maybe it was the unquestionable connection between the dancers, or maybe it was a combination of the two . . . but something special was going on in La Catedral.

Suddenly, the music stopped, and the dancers came back to the tables.

The band and the old tangos...

The band and the old tangos...

Wearing jeans, tennis shoes, and t-shirts, four young men came into La Catedral with their guitars in hand. Another man walked in with a cello. One of the drunken men from the entrance joined the band at the center of the dance floor with a small drum. The drunken musician kept a beer nearby, and so did one of the guitar players. They checked their instruments and prepared to play.

A man with long blond locks seemed to be the leader of the band. “Welcome, everyone. We are going to begin with a milonga.”

The power of the music filled the room as the band passionately played old, traditional milongas.

After a few songs, the band stopped playing and started interacting with the guests seated at the tables. “Hey, you, come here and sing some tangos,” the leader of the band urged one guest.

A slim man with gray hair went to the middle of the stage and surprised the audience with his beautiful, soft-yet-powerful voice that intensified the melancholy of the tangos.

But this was not the only “guest vocalist” of the night. Another man with a grave voice also sang, as well as a woman whose potent voice made her own body tremble.

The improvisation and interaction with the audience made me feel as if I were in a gathering of friends rather than a paid milonga.

The band finished its show with “La Milonga Sentimental,” my absolute favorite!

The leader of the group passed by the tables with a hat collecting contributions. Just as they had appeared out of the blue to perform, they now faded into the darkness of the room to give center stage to the dancers once again.

A short, frail man who looked like he was in his late sixties asked me to dance. I accepted. Usually older men are the best dancers, but you never know; in the tango, each man is a completely different experience.

His name was Horacio.

In a close embrace, we began dancing. I felt a bit lost but tried to follow. His movements were aggressive and hard to read. He kept holding me tighter, sometimes caressing my back. I started feeling awkward.

“Bien,” Horacio murmured in my ear at the end of each song.

I didn’t want to keep dancing with Horacio, but I didn’t want to be rude and stop dancing before the music set was over, either.

As we continued to dance, he whispered in my ear: “You know how it is. You need to put up resistance, pretend that you don’t want it, play hard-to-get, but then give yourself to the man. Just like sex.”

The last thing I wanted to imagine was having sex with a man double my age. The tango is a sensual dance—foreplay—but there is always respect. You can dance the tango with someone you are or aren’t physically attracted to and still have a sublime experience; it is all about feeling the music.

Finally the set came to an end. Horacio asked me if I wished to dance a second round, but I said I had to go.

On my way to the table to pick up my things, a man with long, wavy dark hair in a ponytail approached me. He was probably in his early forties. He was tall and fit, with pearl-white teeth, light chocolate skin, and fine features. He was “El Indio,” a veteran dancer well-known in the tango circle.

He said, “You can’t leave without dancing one song with me.”

I accepted, and we returned to the lonely dance floor.

The first time I saw El Indio was the day before at a street milonga in San Telmo, a neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Argentineans in the audience talked highly about him and praised his dance.

I saw him at my arrival in La Catedral, but didn’t think he would remember me from the day before.

“Sorry, I cannot do the embrace because I hurt my arm last night,” he began.

I leaned into him. Chest-to-chest, I put my left arm around his shoulder. Our right hands wove together. We started to dance.

Knowing how well he danced, I felt intimidated at first. But after the few first steps, I knew I could trust myself in his arms—or at least, in his hand. I closed my eyes as we danced in perfect sync to beautiful old tangos. The dance floor was just for us . . . in fact, almost the entire place was just for us, as most of the guests had already left.

With each song, we got more comfortable with each other. After the tense experience with Horacio, dancing with El Indio felt just right, as if I was dancing with someone who truly felt the music running in his veins. I was completely relaxed, letting myself be led by this bohemian milonguero, feeling the old songs in each step and improvisation we made. We were two complete strangers connected through the tango.

During one of the breaks between sets, I asked if he would answer some questions about the tango scene in Buenos Aires. He didn’t only dance tango; he also knew the noche portena—the night scene of the port city of Buenos Aires—very well.

A passionate tanguero, a free spirit and a bohemian at heart, El Indio had just come back from a backpacking trip through Latin America. But the noche portena is what he loves. He likes the night better than the day.

“Do you want to go for a coffee, or do you prefer to chat here?” El Indio asked.

Although the milonga was empty, the music was still loud, so we went to a nearby coffee shop.

We sat at a corner table in what looked like an old cafeteria. A few fans, clear wooden chairs and tables, and large mirrors decorated the coffee shop. We chatted while two waiters worked around us. Although it was 1 a.m., I couldn’t figure out if the men were closing, opening, or just cleaning. One of the men put the chairs up on the tables, and then took them down again. One of them brought our drinks and then returned to cleaning up. Another couple—also milongueros—stopped by. El Indio said that stopping in coffee shops between milongas was part of the tango ritual.

“So, how did you start dancing the tango?” I asked him.

“Since I was in my mother’s belly, before I was even born.” He flashed his perfect smile.

Everyone in his family danced the tango. Many of them were musicians, so tango wasn’t just a hobby or a form of entertainment; it was a way of life.

El Indio dancing in San Telmo

El Indio dancing in San Telmo

El Indio has dedicated his life to the tango. He loves his bohemian life and wouldn’t trade it for anything—not even money and fame when he was offered a movie role. He said he didn’t like the last version of the script. He teaches tango and hosts a street milonga every Sunday afternoon at Dorrego Square in San Telmo, where I first saw him. He uses some of the money he collects dancing to help those in need.

His face glowed when he talked about Buenos Aires and the music he’d danced to since he was born. He assured me the tango had a unique magic and ritual.

“The clothing, the shoes, the perfume, just imagining how each night will be; finding a woman you like for a dance, the way she walks or just crosses her legs with her high heels while waiting at the table . . . there is a playful exchange of gazes, a seduction game . . . should I dance with this woman or another? Would she dance with me? And how would she seduce me through the dance?” El Indio paused. “I am not saying that other dances don’t have a ritual or are not magical, but with just the first embrace in the tango, the first moment that the dancers find each other on the dance floor, it is soft and special.” One of El Indio’s curls fell over his face.

“I have been in milongas across the world, but there is something unique about the milongas in Buenos Aires,” I said. “What do you think it is?”

“It is Buenos Aires itself. It’s the atmosphere. It begins the moment you step out in Buenos Aires after dark. The architecture, the lights, the taxi driver who tells you interesting and funny stories that make you see and feel Buenos Aires in a different way. Before you go to the milongas, you get together with friends and eat. The best dancers don’t go to the milongas at midnight; they show up at 2 a.m. because that’s when the chichipidos—the amateurs—go to bed. The real milongueros stay out until 6 a.m. For those who love to dance and love tango, it is beautiful to live this ritual. And never ask one of those milongueros what they do during the day; it is not important.” He laughed. “Also, in Buenos Aires, you have places where young people go in their t-shirts and jeans to dance new tango, but there is also the milonguero who wears the suit, the dress shoes, and the impeccable hair shining with gel.”

Knowing he teaches tango, I asked, “What do you think makes a good tango dancer?”

“You need to go through different teachers until you create your own story, your own tango, your own way of seeing life,” he answered.

I thanked Indio for taking the time to talk to me and picked up my purse to pay for our drinks—but there was no wallet inside.

“Oy, Indio, I think my wallet was stolen in the milonga. My cameras are here, but I can’t find my wallet,” I said calmly. I’d had such a beautiful night at La Catedral that not even being robbed disturbed me.

“Are you sure? Maybe it felt out of your purse?” Indio seemed both embarrassed and concerned.

We ran back to La Catedral, but the doors were already closed. Although the lights upstairs were on, no one responded to our calls from the street. After twenty minutes of trying to get someone to open the door, we gave up.

El Indio felt deeply sorry that I’d had a bad experience in my last milonga in Buenos Aires, but I told him not to worry. “I only had fifty pesos, and I can cancel the credit cards and get new ones. It is not a big deal. I had a great time, and this was by far one of the most beautiful milongas I have experienced in Buenos Aires.”

I was truly relaxed. The stolen wallet didn’t seem a big enough reason to disturb my pleasant experience at the milonga.

“I am sorry to ask you, Indio, but I need some pesos to get back to the hotel. Could I borrow some money from you? I promise I will get it back to you tomorrow,” I said.

“Of course.” He put a U.S. five-dollar bill and ten Euros in my hand. “I don’t have enough pesos, but this should be enough to get you to the hotel. If the taxi doesn’t accept it, the concierge will change it.”

I imagined that foreigners who enjoyed watching him dance in the streets of San Telmo have given those bills to him. Now another foreigner was taking that same money.

The end of a beautiful underground milonga...

The end of a beautiful underground milonga...

It was already past 2 a.m., and El Indio walked with me to make sure I got a safe cab. On the way, he stopped at a flower stand and asked, “Please, which one you like?”

“Oh, please, it is not necessary. You are doing more than enough by giving me money to get back to the hotel,” I said, although I was moved.

But when he insisted, I knew not taking them would be rude, and I also knew my fellow milonguero really wanted me to have a good memory of his beloved noche portena. So I selected a beautiful yellow lily.

“Please take care, Daniela,” said El Indio.

We kissed on the cheek, and I got inside the cab, still tasting a beautiful night of tango as I crossed the romantic city of Buenos Aires—with no wallet, but flowers in hand.

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There are currently 3 Comments on A BEAUTIFUL NIGHT OF UNDERGROUND TANGO THAT ENDED WITH NO WALLET BUT FLOWERS IN HAND. Perhaps you would like to add one of your own?

  1. nice post. thanks.

  2. Not bad article, but I really miss that you didn’t express your opinion, but ok you just have different approach

  3. Opinion about what exactly?

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